Humans are causing one of the worst mass extinctions in Earth history

Humans are the root cause of the ‘biological annihilation’ of life on Earth, according to a study published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study – conducted by a team of scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Stanford University – studied population and distribution trends for 27,600 vertebrate species across the globe and found that 32 per cent are decreasing dramatically in both numbers and geographic range.

This study adds to the burgeoning evidence that we are not only witnessing one of the planet Earth’s worst mass extinction events but that we all collectively have blood on our hands.

How do we know that the situation is so serious and that most species will not simply soldier on?

To fully appreciate the scale of this tragedy, we can place the past few centuries within the context of what we know about life during Earth’s 4,543 million-year long history.

Biodiversity in Earth’s ancient past

Generations of scientists from different disciplines – palaeontology, geology and geochemistry, for example – have devoted their lives to reconstructing how life and environmental conditions have changed and become intertwined over time.

A similarly devoted cohort of ecologists and other scientists have been studying modern day species, habitats and ecosystems, looking at the rate of loss of species over time.

Ecologists measure extinction directly in the field, while palaeontologists and other geoscientists do so by digging fossils and extracting evidence from geologic layers of known ages.

Although they use different methods and data, both fields focus on similar questions – What species are present? How many? How do they interact? What causes species to migrate, boom and die off?

The ‘Big 5’

Mass extinction events – the widespread loss of life on our planet in a short period of time – are quite unusual when compared to the gradual ‘background’ extinction rates from the likes of ecological competition, predation and other gradual changes.

We now know that five major extinction events have disrupted the course of life on Earth over the past 600 million years.

The so-called ‘Big 5’ were the end-Ordovician extinction event 443 million years ago (Ma); the Late Devonian event between 370 and 365 Ma; the end-Permian event 252 Ma; the end-Triassic event 201 Ma and the end-Cretaceous event 66 Ma.

Based on the fossil record before and after these events, it is estimated that each of the ‘Big 5’ killed off at least 75 per cent of all life at that time.

These mass extinction events span intervals ranging from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of years, a blip in geologic time.

The end-Cretaceous event is the most well understood, thanks in large part to the work conducted by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Luis Walter Alvarez and his son Walter.

Along with colleagues, they identified an ‘extraterrestrial’ iridium layer in sedimentary strata from deposits of this age at sites around the globe.

The story became clear when scientists stumbled upon a large impact crater at the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico – the end-Cretaceous MEE and the last days of the non-avian dinosaurs were brought about by an asteroid impact and the ensuing chain of events.

The Great Dying

The end-Permian extinction, aptly nicknamed ‘The Great Dying’ was the largest and most catastrophic of the ‘Big 5’.

It caused the staggering loss of 95 per cent of marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial species in a geologic heartbeat – about 20,000 years – according to 2011 study published in Science.

The ‘Great Dying’ resulted from runaway climate change – with global temperatures 8°C warmer than previous – caused by the release of large amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The exact trigger is still debated but it seems likely that massive volcanic eruptions in what is now Siberia and methane released from destabilised deep sea gas hydrates are the primary culprits.

The combined effect would have been a complete change in atmospheric composition, with CO2­ concentrations probably about four or five times higher than today, depletion of oxygen in the oceans and massive sea level rise.

Humans on par with asteroids and mass volcanism

While there have likely been numerous other mass extinction events prior to 600 Ma, the last 600 million years documents the rise and evolution of animal and plant life and all of the trials and tribulations faced with living on Earth.

So how do the ‘Big 5’ compare with extinction since humans have been on the scene?

There is abundant fossil and archaeological evidence that humans have been a primary cause of animal extinction ever since we moved out of Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

According to a 2017 study in the journal Nature, the widespread extinction of large terrestrial species has coincided with historical human migrations.

Terrestrial animal extinctions continued unabated to the point that by about 3,000 years ago, it is estimated that 50 per cent of large mammal species and 15 per cent of birds were extinct.

Since 1500 AD extinction rates accelerated as the Age of Exploration brought us to vast new lands.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now estimates that 338 vertebrate species have gone extinct since 1500 AD.

A 2015 study in the journal Science Advances puts vertebrate extinctions at as much 100 times greater than the calculated background rate of 2 per 100 years.

The IUCN Red List – containing a database of described species and their conservation status – currently contains 80,000 species and almost 30 per cent are threatened with extinction.

Forty-one per cent of amphibians, 34 per cent of conifers, 33 per cent of reef-building corals, 25 per cent of mammals and 13 per cent of birds are currently threatened.

The spread of agriculture is the main driver for most of these losses, followed by the spread of urbanisation, logging, mining, the loss wildlife transport corridors, hunting and water pollution.

Hundreds of species and countless populations are being lost each year as a result of human activity and since countless species have yet to be described, much more are also likely threatened or threatened with extinction.

The Anthropocene and the Sixth Mass Extinction

The greatest mass extinctions in Earth history brought complex life to the very brink of existence in as little as a few thousand years.

Historical and modern pressures from human activity have driven large proportions of species to extinction or to the brink of extinction in a similar, if not more rapid, timeframe.

Scientists may debate whether we are on the cusp or in the middle of the sixth mass extinction and when exactly the Anthropocene geological epoch – where humans have left behind a global identifiable record in the geologic record – began.

Either way, the plight of most species on Earth has reached crisis level and is set to escalate in the coming years as the human population potentially balloons by another four billion by the end of the twenty-first century and climate change will play an increasingly greater role in species extinction.

Urgent conventional and proactive conservation approaches are needed, together with an unprecedented degree of engagement between stakeholders, scientists and policy makers.

 A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 21st, 2017.

Serious dangers of BPA recognised by leading chemical safety agency

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) – responsible for implementing chemical legislation in the EU – has officially recognised the endocrine-disrupting properties of bisphenol A, also known as BPA.

The update was made to the ECHA Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), which contains substances that may have serious effects on human health or the environment.

The list forms part of the EU Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).

The update was made after a proposal from France and following consideration by the ECHA Member State Committee (MSC).

Endocrine disrupting chemicals

BPA is one of the most studied and well understood endocrine disrupting chemical (EDCs).

EDCs are natural or synthetic compounds that alter endocrine function within the body by mimicking or blocking hormones.

BPA is also one of the most common EDCs found in manufactured products and in the environment.

The convenient, industrialized world that we live in today has led to our essentially continuous exposure to these types of chemicals.

BPA is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate, as a hardener for epoxy resins, in polyvinylchloride (PVC) production and in thermal paper production.

Many studies have shown that EDCs cause significant harm to animals, with the most serious harm caused during fetal and early life exposure.

The sources and pathways of exposure are myriad, but industrial and agricultural run-off making its way into drinking water and direct leaching from food and beverage containers are the most common for humans.

Studies have shown that aquatic life exposed to BPA have increased female-to-male ratios, longer hatching times for young, reduced body weight and deformities.

recent review of the literature also highlighted that BPA affects immune cells and can exacerbate inflammatory conditions.

An important step

The ECHA has also added endocrine disruption to the hazardous properties of four other chemicals on the SVHC list.

All four of these chemicals belong to a group called phthalates, which are used in the manufacture of plastics to increase the flexibility, durability and longevity of the final product.

While BPA was originally included in the ECHA candidate list in January in recognition of its toxicity for reproduction, the latest update for BPA and phthalates is an important step towards phasing out the use of EDCs in Europe and will help limit future health and environmental impacts.

The inclusion of a substance in the Candidate List creates legal obligations to companies manufacturing, importing or using such substances.

Importantly, any product that contains an SVHC in concentrations more than 0.1 per cent by weight will be given the same level of concern as the substance itself.

SVHCs on the Candidate list may be included in an ‘Authorisation List’ and if so, such substances cannot be placed on the market or used unless an authorisation is granted for their specific use, or the use is exempted from authorisation.

Importers and producers of products containing SVHCs have six months from the date of its inclusion in the Candidate List to notify ECHA.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 14th, 2017

Three years and six goals to meet targets in the Paris Climate Agreement

A grouping of climate change experts has published six goals that must be achieved by 2020 in order to meet the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

In a letter published in the journal Nature, the authors and co-signatories – represented by eminent scientists, business leaders, economists and NGO representatives – declared we must “overcome the risks of climate change” and “act boldly together”.

To meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the experts identified six key goals to be met by 2020:

  1. Renewable energy should make up 30 per cent of global electricity supply and no coal-fired power plants should be commissioned
  2. Three per cent of building and infrastructure stock should come from near-zero or zero-emission buildings each year
  3. Electric vehicles should make up 15 per cent of annual car sales, as well as a 20 per cent reduction in aviation emissions and 20 per cent increase in efficiency of heavy duty vehicles
  4. Policies should be enacted to shift land use from deforestation to reforestation and traditional agriculture to sustainable approaches. In doing so these lands would switch from being carbon sources to carbons sinks by 2030
  5. Carbon-intensive heavy industry should have plans in place to increase efficiency and be on a path to halve emissions by 2050
  6. $1 trillion dollars should be set aside annually for climate action initiatives

The authors choice of 2020 is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, with current global CO2 emissions at a staggering 41 gigatonnes per year, the goals of the Paris Agreement become essentially unattainable if emissions continue at this scale by 2020.

Secondly, 2020  marks the year when a country can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, as President Trump has already announced that the US will do.

Although the authors recognise that their goals are “idealistic at best [and] unrealistic at worst” and that the “political winds are blustery”, they remain optimistic.

“We are in the age of exponential transformation and think that such a focus will unleash ingenuity,” the letter reads.

For the first time in history there is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks associated with climate change are too great to ignore and that we must work urgently and collectively.

In many cases, solutions already exist and the transition to low-carbon technology is well underway in many sectors.

The global expansion of wind and solar energy will continue and the global sales of electric vehicles appear to be on the cusp of a rapid global expansion.

The past three years mark the first time that global emissions have stagnated while global GDP has grown, indicating that measures already adopted are beginning to have an effect.

While the recent G20 summit highlights the political and civil tension that exists at present, one clear positive outcome from the weekend’s meeting was the reaffirmed commitment to the Paris Agreement by the world’s most powerful economies bar the United States.

Although the G20 summit has further isolated the US, optimists will focus on the continuation of the US renewable energy transition and emissions reduction and a continued commitment by states, cities, companies and citizens despite the best efforts of the current administration.

In a recent interview, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson – a signatory of the letter in Nature – struck a positive note in relation to the US stance: “What President Trump has done is put climate on the American agenda in a way that it was never there before, and provoked a dynamic response from communities, business, civil society, philanthropy.”

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 10th, 2017.

Ireland’s worst environmental offenders named and shamed by EPA

Ireland’s environmental watchdog has warned five industrial sites already under its radar for serious breaches of the environmental law to clean up their act or face further sanctions.

The five sites are Arrow Group Limited, Co Kildare; Rosderra Irish Meats Group, Co Offaly; T & J Standish Limited, Co Tipperary; Tipperary Co-operative Creamery Limited, Co Tipperary; and Irish Cement Limited, Co Limerick.

The sites are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priority Site (NPS) list, which is updated on a quarterly basis.

Although the sites only account for less than one per cent of EPA licensed sites across the country, they account for eight per cent of EPA site inspections completed so far this year. Three of the sites alone accounted for over half of all complaints received to-date in 2017.

Environmental performance is calculated based on the number of complaints, incidents and non-compliance issues over the past six months. The EPA believes that the NPS rating system will encourage compliance and will also provide targets for the EPA for further enforcement.

The EPA will “escalate enforcement action” against both companies and their directors if compliance does not improve, said the Director of Environmental Enforcement, Gerard O’Leary.

Mary Gurrie, Programme Manager in Mr O’Leary’s department added that it was “not acceptable” for licensed sites to cause nuisance or impact on the environment.  “These operators face further enforcement action,” she added.

Irish Cement Limited

Earlier this year, the EPA found the Irish Cement plant to be “in non-compliance” over dust emissions, and opened a formal probe into the firm after identifying a number of other issues at the plant on the edge of Limerick City.

Plans from Irish Cement to burn 90,000 tonnes of industrial waste and used tyres at its plant in Castlemungret, Mungret, Co Limerick was recently flagged in the Dáil by Willie O’Dea, TD. 

Irish Cement is one of four cement plants on the island of Ireland, three of which have moved from burning fossil fuel to burning industrial and toxic waste.

The Limerick Deputy outlined his concern at the plans as there are 25,000 currently living in the immediate vicinity of the plant, which he said has an “appalling safety record”.

“I am advised by people who know a lot more about this than I do, that the burning of toxic waste in a cement plant is infinitely more dangerous to the environment than a traditional incinerator.

“There is a wealth of scientific evidence that shows a very close connection between various forms of cancer and respiratory diseases and proximity to this type of operation.”

Planning permission for an extension to the facility was granted by Limerick City County Council in March, with an appeal currently before An Bord Pleanána. A decision from the planning authority is due in early August.

Environmental enforcement trends

€178,000 in fines and costs were paid out from 11 prosecutions last year, according to the EPA’s Industrial and Waste License Enforcement Report 2016. The report highlighted that the vast majority of environmental complaints against licensed facilities in 2016 related to odour nuisances.

In total, the environmental watchdog conducted over 1,500 inspections last year, most of which were to sites in the waste sector.

Enva Ireland in Laois, Knockharley Landfill in Meath, Ballynagran Landfill in Wicklow, Greyhound and Thorntons Recycling facilities in Dublin and a number of Oxigen Environmental sites accounted for the majority of inspections, 95 per cent of which were unannounced.

A total of 1,542 non-compliances were recorded for 325 licensed sites, with the Food and Drink sector being the least compliant sector.

New licenses granted in 2016 shows that there is an expansion of sites conducting Intensive Agriculture, particularly in Monaghan and Cavan, and further expansion of waste management across the country.

The full report is available on the EPA website.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 12th, 2017.

All new Volvo cars to be electric or hybrid from 2019

Volvo will only produce fully electric or hybrid cars from 2019, making it the first mainstream car manufacturer to commit to a total phase out of cars solely powered by internal combustion engines.

This may well be a landmark moment and one of the clearest a signs yet that traditional petrol or diesel fueled cars may be a thing of the past sooner than many expected.

“This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car,” Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson announced yesterday in a live-streamed press conference.

The Sweden-based company, which is owned by the Chinese car manufacturer Geely Holding Group, plans to release five fully-electric vehicles (EVs) between 2019 and 2021, followed by a range of hybrid-powered cars equipped with petrol or diesel engines.

Volvo envisions that they will have 2 million of their new electrified vehicles on the road by 2025.

Car manufacturers scrambling to comply with EU 7 legislation

Mr Samuelsson said the move is a response to customer demands, although it also coincides with the introduction of EURO 7 legislation to set legally binding carbon emission targets by 2020.

The new legislation will limit CO2 emissions of new cars sold in the EU to 95 grams per kilometer. Emissions from the average EU car was 118 grams per kilometer last year.

In 2015, new diesel cars from Volvo and other manufacturers were found by Europe’s largest motoring organisation, Adac, to emit substantially higher levels of pollution than those revealed in existing EU tests. As revealed in the Guardian, Adac tested the cars using an alternative UN standard set to be introduced by the EU this year.

Other manufacturers, such as BMW, Volkswagen, Jaguar and Land Rover, have laid out ambitious plans to ramp up production of electric cars in order to comply with this legislation.

Renault leads the pack when it comes to sales of EVs in Europe for 2017, followed by Nissan, Peugeot, Kia and the much vaunted Tesla.

EV sales continue to break records, but ending subsidies could spell danger

The global sales of electric vehicles hit a record of 750,000 in 2016 and 2017 is set to far surpass that figure again, with projected sales of over 1 million vehicles. China is the largest manufacturer, accounting for 40 per cent of electric cars sold, with the EU coming in second.

However, the fragile nature of the EV market and its reliance on substantial government tax subsidies was recently highlighted in Denmark, where EV sales dropped 60 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2016.

This consumer U-turn came as the Danish government announced plans to phase out EV tax subsidies between 2016 and 2020. The government has since reversed this decision, however, consumer confusion still exists and it is affecting sales.

In Ireland, EV owners benefit from a €5,000 grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, up to €5,000 vehicle registration tax relief and 800 free charge points dotted around the country.

It is clear that EV technology is coming down the road but it is still unclear at exactly what speed and what obstacles lie in the way.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 6th, 2017.

Legislation needed to protect European soil, new EU study finds

A new report published by the European Parliament’s committee responsible for scrutinising the European Commission’s agricultural policies has highlighted the threats facing soils across Europe.

The report – prepared by academic experts from Wageningen University, Aarhus University and the University of Cordoba – was presented to the European Parliament on 20th June and included a number of policy recommendations.

The experts emphasise the needs to reframe how we think about soil preservation to include the protection of ecosystem services provided by soils. These services include the provision of harvestable crops, clean fresh water and nutrients for plants and animals, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of a stable climate.

Soils and soil ecosystem services in Europe are faced with numerous threats that limit their capacity to function and prospects to sustain into the future. Intensification of agriculture, urbanisation and land grabbing, and poor management practices have led to widespread reduction in soil fertility, nutrient content and biodiversity.

We are also seeing widespread destruction of soil due to erosion, compaction, salinisation and desertification.

Protection of organic-rich soils a priority

One of the primary threats identified in the report is the loss of soils with high organic carbon content. EU soils contain more than 70,000 million tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 2,000 million tonnes of carbon emitted each year by Member States.

If we were to allow the release of even a fraction of this soil carbon to the atmosphere, we would easily undo all emissions reduction measures in other sectors.

Peatlands are the most efficient store of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems and Northern European peatlands represent almost 4 per cent of this global carbon reservoir.

Peatlands not only lock away carbon that will otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere but pristine peatlands also sequester 350 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally.

Many European peatlands have been degraded by drainage activities and associated spread of agriculture and other industries.

Agro-foresty and silvopastoral systems are highly productive agricultural lands and also have high carbon content. The loss of productive agricultural land to urbanisation and land sealing – trapping of soil beneath asphalt and concrete – is a major threat to these areas.

Given the projected substantial increases in global food demand, pressures on biodiversity and our continued commitment to reducing COemissions, the report states that we must preserve our most productive and carbon-rich soils.

Topsoil being washed away, subsoil under pressure

Twenty-two per cent of European land is affected by erosion from water and wind, a large proportion of which is directly related to conventional tillage activities. Transitioning to the use of no-tillage or minimal tillage practices would reduce the erosion of topsoil.

The increased use of catch crops and cover crops instead of traditional bare fallow approaches would also help reduce erosion. Over time, there would be the added benefit of increased nutrient, organic and water content of soils.

Policy measures that enforce adaption to these farming practices will be needed. The report also proposes the potential establishment of formal vulnerable zones.

About one-third of European soils, specifically the subsoil lying underneath topsoil, are badly impacted by compaction caused by heavy machinery. The continual pressure to increase labour productivity is driving this increased mechanization of agriculture.

The report calls for statutory maximum permissible limits to the wheel load carrying capacity for traffic on agricultural soils.

Moving towards agroecological practices

This reports adds to previously published research to conclude that we need to transition from conventional soil management practices to ecologically informed practices that improve soil quality. These include conservation agriculture and organic farming.

While many of the threats to soil traverse political borders, soil is undoubtedly more challenging to manage than water or air. This is due to the substantial geographic variation in soil parent material, climate, topography and historical management and usage.

The diverse nature of soil type and land usage across Europe necessitates that any policies must rank and implement measures based on local requirements.

The AGRI report recommends a ‘two-pronged’ approach – promotion and enforcement of local suitable practices at the farm level and the monitoring and evaluation at the catchment scale to test impacts of measures on ecosystem services.

The time for awareness and voluntary action has passed, the time for legislation long overdue

The AGRI report found – based on a survey of thousands of European farmers – that there is generally a high level of awareness among farmers about the importance of soils and the need for their protection.

The timescale of the proposed ‘no net land-take’ by 2050 – a target put forward in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (COM 571/2011) – was also called into question. It is simply too long given the scale of the threat facing soils across Europe.

The EU Seventh Environment Action Programme states that sustainable soil management, soil protection and remediation of contaminated sites should be underway by 2020.

The EU has also signed up for the Sustainable Development Goals, which include elements of sustainable agriculture and soil protection. However, none of these initiatives includes legally binding provisions.

The People4Soil campaign is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling on the Commission to provide for such a legally binding framework.

The ECI is the EU’s direct democracy platform, enabling citizens to participate in the development of EU polices by petitioning the European Commission to make a legislative proposal.

If a petition receives one million signatures from European citizens from a least 7 out of the 28 Member States , within one year, the Commission is obliged to meet with the organisers and hold a public hearing on the proposals before deciding whether or not to propose new legislation on the issue.

People4Soil is supported by more than 500 organisations across Europe and needs its 1 million signatures by September 2017. Please sign the petition by following this link and you can do your part to help protect soils across Europe.

A version of this article appears in the Green News on June 22nd, 2017.

Retailers face higher costs without HFC phase-out, says Environmental Investigation Agency

European retailers face severe financial repercussions if they do not transition to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-free cooling technology, the Environmental Investigation Agency warned today.

The EU F-Gas Regulation, brought into law in 2015, legislates for the rapid, stepped phasing out of the use HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases.

From 2018 HFC supplies will be slashed by 48 per cent. This will make HFC technology far less attractive from a cost point of view and suppliers will be forced to increases prices sharply.

Prices already increased 62 per cent in the first quarter of 2017. The EIA is urging supermarkets and other retailers to speed up the transition.

Clare Perry, head of the EIA’s Climate Campaign, also warned that HFC shortages could drive illegal trade in HFCs in the EU. This black market trade is also a concern in the US.

In their latest Chilling Facts report, the EIA outlined the current retailers that are leading the transition, with Aldi Süd and Tesco topping the list.

Ms Perry said that while European retailers stand out as global leaders in the adoption of HFC-free commercial refrigeration “the uptake across Europe is much short of the pace needed”.

The report highlights that all new Aldi stores in Ireland will use HFC-free refrigeration. Tesco currently has 11 stores in Ireland that use CO2 instead of HFC as a coolant, the report states.

However, Musgraves – a leading grocery and wholesale supplier in Ireland – is lagging far behind and according to the EIA report relies heavily on HFC technology.

HFC use has soared since first introduced as a replacement for banned chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

These chlorinated organic compounds were largely responsible for the global atmospheric ozone depletion and were banned as part of the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

Montreal was a landmark agreement and put the ozone layer on a path to complete recovery by the middle of this century. This recovery will prevent harmful cancer-causing UV radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface.

While HFCs are far less damaging to ozone and have a much lower global warming potential (GWP) than CFCs, they still have a GWP thousands of times greater than CO2. In recognition of the dangers of HFCs, a global agreement was reached last year to amend the Montreal Protocol to include the phasing out of HFCs.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 15th, 2017.